Simple & Sinister Progression Tactic

Today we will discuss some nuances of your Kettlebell Simple & Sinister progression, inspired by lively discussions on the StrongFirst forum.

Simple & Sinister Pavel Tsatsouline

In a nutshell, the program calls for 10×10 one-arm swings (five sets per arm), with the goal of eventually being able to do them in five minutes with a particular size kettlebell any time. It does not mean you should strive to hit your 100 swings in five minutes in every training session, though.

Al Ciampa, SFG, pointed out:

Training for an event, or competition is always different from the event itself: the intensity is usually lower, the distance or time is shorter/less, etc. But, our contemporaries would have you believe otherwise. So, in the current fitness context of boot camps, insane training programs, high-intensity this and that… well, of course, you are going to compete (read: try for the S&S goal) every session.

But in the same way that you do not run the marathon until the actual race… do not attempt the time standards of S&S until your “training is complete”. This “training” consists of many months, possibly years, of lower intensity swings and get-ups, i.e., training to your breath, HR, talk test, etc. No clock, no sense of urgency, no rush. Let the training provoke adaptations in your mind and body, then, and only then, apply those adaptations to the competition: the S&S time goal.

In the beginning, when the kettlebell is light, you might be able to do your 100 swings in five minutes every day. But as your poundages climb, an organic form of cycling tends to develop to comply with the non-negotiable rules of S&S: stay fresh every day and explosive every set. You can do it by training aerobically most of the days – that is resting long enough between sets to pass the talk test.

The Science Behind Simple & Sinister

Belying its apparent simplicity, S&S happens to have some fascinating science under the hood. Back in the 1980s, Soviet scientists and coaches, Prof. Yuri Verkhoshansky among them, pioneered “anti-glycolytic training” for various endurance events. Where the prevailing approach of dealing with the “burn” of accumulating lactic acid was—and still is—exposing the athlete to ever more intense acid baths, the Soviets had a radical thought: what if we arrange the training in such a manner that the muscles do not produce and accumulate so much acid?

Early efforts concentrated on “putting anaerobic glycolysis in a vice,” as one coach put it, of two other energy systems, alactic and aerobic. The former is responsible for the first twenty seconds or so of a powerful effort before anaerobic glycolysis and the “burn” kick in. Training methods were developed to beef up the alactic “tank” and improve aerobic recovery.

Although these experiments were successful, the above adaptations are fairly limited. It was not until the Soviet Union fell apart that anti-glycolytic training or AGT was revolutionized by Prof. Victor Selouyanov. He discovered how to make the fast and intermediate fibers aerobic.

What gives the slow fibers their endurance are the little organelles called mitochondria. Mitochondria allow one to efficiently produce energy for muscle contractions with the use of oxygen, aerobically. Selouyanov found a way of installing these aerobic machines into fast fibers!

Note: Before we continue, it must be stressed that developing mitochondria in a fast fiber does not make the fiber slower or weaker. Members of the Russian national judo team who have had tremendous success with anti-glycolytic conditioning routinely bench press 1.75-2 times their bodyweight.

Russian national judo team
The Russian national judo team implemented anti-glycolytic training with great success.

Although some recent studies claim to know the answers, the exact cellular mechanisms that turn on mitochondrial growth are not yet known. But Selouyanov figured out the stimuli responsible for turning these mechanisms on. He learned that it is the total time a muscle fiber spends in mild fatigue and acidity that presses the button.

Applying Science to a Simple & Sinister Progression

Runners are familiar with this effect when their slower fibers grow some more mitochondria from training just below the anaerobic threshold. The AnT refers to the exercise intensity when lactic acid accumulation suddenly starts speeding up. Training right below this threshold produces the desired condition of mild local fatigue/acidity.

In fast fibers, the same effect can be achieved by carefully changing the loading parameters in interval training: briefer and more powerful work; longer and active rest. You must stop each set of a high power exercise at the point where the alactic tank is starting to run low but anaerobic glycolysis has not had the time to rev up all to full speed—typically at ten to twenty seconds. Then you must rest longer than what you are accustomed to in order to permit the fatigue and the acid to dissipate. The rest must be active—walking around, jogging, “fast and loose” drills, etc. Easy movement speeds up the elimination of acid.

Prof. Selouyanov sums up mitochondria producing AGT:

…every muscular contraction must be performed with a near-maximal intensity but average intensity of the exercise should not exceed the anaerobic threshold power. In this case all muscle fibers are active in the exercise but, thanks to regulation of the rest pause and the period of muscular relaxation, complete clearance of metabolic products of anaerobic glycolysis must be assured.

This is where the talk test comes in. American research showed that the highest exercise intensity at which you can still talk comfortably places you slightly below the An—if you are not sure whether you are comfortable or not, you are at or slightly above the AnT. (You can also use a heart rate monitor to optimize your Kettlebell Simple & Sinister training intensity instead of the talk test. Al Ciampa, SFG and I tell you how in this blog.)

Now what happens if you rest less, and start your next set while you are still huffing and puffing? Presumably, the mitochondria growing machinery comes to a halt or at least slows down. The endurance you are developing will be more glycolytic in nature and your body composition will be improving through different physiological mechanisms.

Applying the Science to Your Training

There are pros and cons of glycolytic training (I have touched on them briefly in the past and will expand in the future). The most immediate con is the inability to sustain high quality daily training and to have high energy and readiness. Decades ago, the Soviets recognized that predominantly glycolytic training is most stressful to the endocrine system and thus can easily lead to overtraining. Or at least make you feel sore and tired, which is at odds with the stated goals of S&S.

In summary, your Simple & Sinister progression tactic is:

Most of your S&S sessions do not rush the clock and wait until you can pass the talk test before your next set. On the last session of each week push harder and occasionally all out and test yourself.

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

64 thoughts on “Simple & Sinister Progression Tactic

  • I started S+S 30 workouts ago (34 days, missed a couple of workouts due to family / work commitments, but am still aiming at a workout 7/7). keen to learn technique and not get injured by overloading an old shoulder rotator cuff injury, I started out with 16kg kbells. within a week, it felt too light – suitable for warmup only – and so i have progressed to the 24kg bell – and on workout 28 felt sufficiently frisky that I took a pop at the 32kg bell for the get-up and had little difficulty doing the lift. what i find amazing is that only 4 weeks before, I had been unable to even rack the 32 without serious difficulty! I am thoroughly enjoying this daily “recharge”, done before showering/dressing for work – and find the organic recovery of my strength capacity quite fascinating. I suspect that I will have to restrain my enthusiasm and spend more time building “shadow intensity” with the 24kg on swings, but anticipate having to upgrade to 32kg before the winter. What I love is that on days I feel less strong, I can throttle back and work on technique with more time to recover, and days when I brim with energy I can easily raise the bar. thank you for the brilliant program – I have committed to doing this exclusively for a year, and look forward to what the daily practice brings. Considering I am 55yrs old and have an osteoarthritic knee, torn shoulder and old neck disc prolapse, I am thoroughly enjoying the fact that my old injuries are not holding me back the way a squat/deadlift/bench program would. Thank You Pavel!


    Bill Warrilow

  • Sorry, probably not the right place to ask this, but even after bothering the people on the forums about this, I still am not sure as to why someone would choose to follow the “Enter the Kettlebell” system over S&S or vice versa. I’ve been a bit perplexed as to why there are two apparently competing programmes like this from the same Strongfirst philosophy. It they’re equal and it’s just by individual preference, then I’ll keep at S&S forever because I like daily consistency – my personality is like this, but if Enter the Kettlebell (ROP) is better or for people who are a bit more serious about weightlifting then I wouldn’t want to miss out on it.

  • hmmm…
    trying to restart S&S I changed how I would progress. My limit has typically been my lungs…

    Normally one does one set at the top of the minute. You start with 5×10 in 5 minutes and eventually add a set when you can until eventually you do 10×10 in 10. In the past i found it hard to keep making progress.

    I’m trying a tweak that appears to be working better so far for me. Keep the swing portion to 10 minutes regardless of sets. One set every two minutes when 5×10. That does mean more rest when you start with less sets. When you add a set you front load it with only one minute, the remainder of the sets stay at 2 minutes of rest. The first minute of rest I’m marching in place with gusto. The second minute of rest I’m slowing down, shaking it out, doing some mobility drills. This is just a small trick that I find is making my progress “easier”.

    total sets: rest per set
    5: 5×120
    6: 1×60 5×120
    7: 3×60 4×120
    8: 5×60 3×120
    9: 7×60 2×120
    10: 10×60

  • Andy, the problem is not lactate but H+. Although the mechanisms of excess H+ formation during anaerobic glycolysis may be more complex than simple disassociation of lactic acid into lactate and H+ (Robergs et al. 2004), H+ still remains the bad guy.

  • Sound training advice, although as the article acknowledges, the science of lactate utilisation is an area of active research and popular misconceptions abound.
    Readers interested in the background theory would do well to check out the papers of Dr George Brooks at Berkeley.

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